Digging Art through Science

By Jim Dodson, posted on Sep 8, 2021

Sometimes you happen upon a great idea for a motivating lesson from watching your students try out new things. Such is the case with our archaeological dig project that was born from a student observing my life-size human skeleton located in our art room. The student asked if he could re-create the skull using clay. Being the teacher who wants to encourage experimentation, I naturally agreed. This student really didn’t enjoy observational drawing, but he had a natural affinity for working with his hands.

SchoolArts magazine, October 2021 issue, Digging Art Through Science
Left: Bisque-fired clay bones resembling the human skeleton are laid out in the art room prior to burial. Right: A Jefferson Middle School student exhumes clay bones from the outdoor mulch bed.
SchoolArts magazine, October 2021 issue, Digging Art Through Science
Students assemble unearthed clay bones and identify their location and function in the human body.

Unearthing Inspiration
As other students created a still-life drawing of the human skeleton, this student used clay to create his life-size skull replica. As he progressed through the assignment, I became amazed at the accuracy of his 3D rendering.

After the skull was allowed to air-dry, we loaded it into the kiln and bisque-fired it. The next day, the skull was removed from the kiln, and before we could consider painting the piece, I noticed how much the bisqueware resembled the same color and texture of actual bleached bones.

This gave me an idea: Instead of simply drawing the skeleton with pencils or charcoal, we would introduce a lesson on observational studies using clay, combined with an anatomy lesson already being taught by one of our life science teachers. This combination would encourage more hands-on learning and understanding, particularly from students who did better with manipulatives.

Creating an Archeological Dig
Our art and science students proceeded to create individual bones of the human body using low-fire white clay. So, what could we do to add one more step to motivate students as they were asked to identify the individual bones and how they functioned in the human body? Again, one student in the class was enamored with films such as Jurassic Park, and dinosaurs and archaeological digs. The next day, I produced a mulch pile behind our school and buried the bones created by students.

At the end of the art/science lesson, our eighth-grade class was invited to the area behind the school to unearth the clay bones and reassemble the remains of a human skeleton. Each student genuinely engaged in the discovery process, and students who often were not actively involved in class played an enthusiastic role in the discussion.

Assembling the Skeleton
Our class placed the unearthed bones together atop the mulch pile, then transported them back to the art room where we compared the pieces to my life-size skeleton. The discussion was so much more in-depth as student after student identified the individual bones while also connecting the pieces to assemble a complete skeleton. Since that first experience, this lesson is always in my toolkit when I have reluctant learners who need a little extra motivation.

A lesson driven by the curiosity of a single student led to a project that involved many students experiencing learning in a new and motivating manner, which ultimately resulted in a deeper understanding of both art and science. This was a true STEAM success!

Jim Dodson is an art teacher at Jefferson Middle School in Oak Ridge, Tennessee.

National Standard
Connecting: Relating artistic ideas and work with personal meaning and external context.

View this article in the digital edition.